Key Murkowski Senate energy post in peril

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski's plum post as the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will likely be the second casualty of her write-in campaign to keep her seat in the U.S. Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said fellow Republican senators will decide Wednesday afternoon in a closed-door meeting "whether or not it's appropriate" for the Alaskan to continue to lead the committee for Republicans. She already resigned from her spot as vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican conference, a post role she has held since early 2009.

Murkowski's Energy committee post is one that's of vital interest to Alaskans and among the leading achievements of what had been her swift ascent the past two years within the GOP leadership ranks. Not only had she secured a leadership post within the Republican conference, but she also landed former Sen. Ted Stevens' old post on the Appropriations Committee and the top energy job for Republicans.

Murkowksi resigned Friday from her leadership role in the Republican conference when she announced she would take on Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams in a write-in campaign. She was the fifth-ranking GOP leader and the highest-ranking woman in Senate Republican leadership.

The nine remaining Republicans on the Energy committee are likely to recommend her ouster to the full 41-member conference, which will hold a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon to elect a replacement within the leadership ranks as well discuss who should replace Murkowski on the Energy Committee.

Murkowski's campaign had no immediate comment on the developments.

Miller's campaign said he is pleased Republicans were replacing her in the leadership ranks, a move his Alaska supporters had written to McConnell to urge him to do.

"Joe of course is a Republican candidate, and we appreciate the backing that their Republican leadership is giving him as far as taking away her leadership position among the party itself," said spokesman Randy DeSoto said. "We appreciate that support because Joe is the Republican nominee and she's not honoring the will of the voters. She's not honoring the primary process."

A spokeswoman for McAdams' campaign deemed it "an internal struggle within the Republican Party."

"It just emphasizes the kind of power struggle that's going on within the Republican Party -- both at the national level and here in Alaska," said campaign spokeswoman Heather Handyside. "It is an example of the kind of drama that happens in D.C. -- and from Scott's perspective -- distracts from the issues of Alaskans, which is what his main focus is."

next in line

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., could get the biggest boost from Murkowski's write-in bid -- he's next in line to replace her as the top Republican on the Energy committee. However, because there's only a short time left in this session of Congress and he also has a seat as the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, his job will likely be merely an interim one.

McConnell brought the issue up with fellow Republicans at their weekly luncheon Tuesday afternoon. He was seconded by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who, like Murkowski, was ousted in a primary by a fellow Republican with tea party backing. Bennett suggested that the committee needs an interim ranking member to take over while she is campaigning.

McConnell would not discuss Murkowski's fate. But many Republicans are seething that she decided to run in the general election against the Republican who won the primary.

"The genesis of it is her desire to run against the Republican nominee," said Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "It's an obvious question that had to be dealt with."

Anyway, Alexander said, "She will not be here the next two weeks, and there will be meetings of the committee."

Murkowski's office said Tuesday that she doesn't expect to spend much time in Washington during her campaign. That's not uncommon for senators facing difficult re-elections -- or those running for president. Congress is unlikely to spend much time in Washington over the next several weeks, and both the House and Senate have debated adjourning early to allow more time to campaign before the Nov. 2 election.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., immediately declared his candidacy for Murkowski's GOP leadership post. The conference's decisions on ranking member and vice chairman will only apply to the 111th Congress, which will run through the end of the year.

Burr, like Murkowski, is up for re-election this year but does not face as difficult a campaign Democratic opponent. North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall had amassed just $163,000 cash on hand to fend off Burr's $6.2 million. Burr is among the Senate's most conservative members and is considered less likely to work across the aisle with Democratic Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

Burr currently has a rating of 9 of a possible 100 from the League of Conservation Voters' environmental scorecard. Murkowski's rating is 36.

"She wasn't considered particularly green, but I guess that would make her four times better than him," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group in Washington.

North Carolina is home to Duke Energy, the nation's third-largest electric utility company. The company has an extensive network of coal-fired power plants and is pushing to expand its nuclear energy base.

Duke Energy is one of Burr's top contributors. For the current election cycle, he is Congress' fifth leading recipient of campaign donations from electric utilities and is No. 16 in receipts from oil and gas companies.

Barbara Barrett, Lesley Clark, David Goldstein and David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.